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Experience the high winds and shifting sands of the desert without ever leaving the North Carolina coast. Located at Nags Head on the Outer Banks, Jockey’s Ridge State Park features the tallest active sand dune system in the eastern United States. Comprised of three peaks, shifting winds constantly reshape the 420 acres of dunes making it a new experience for visitors each day. Those same winds make Jockey’s Ridge one of the best places to fly kites on the Outer Banks, and you’ll often see a horizon dotted with kites of all shapes and sizes. Kites aren’t the only things taking flight at Jockey’s Ridge; free permits are available for hang gliders ready to surf the sky. After a full day of flying, gliding, sand-boarding and picnicking, finish your visit by watching a stunner sunset from the top of the ridge.
The Black River in eastern North Carolina is one of the few waterways left that hasn’t been cut by man. Nestled deep in this pristine river is Three Sisters Swamp, home to hundreds of ancient bald cypress trees, many more than 1,000 years old. A tree called Methuselah, or BLK69 by its official name, dates back to at least 364 AD and has been verified to be the oldest tree in eastern America. Scientists believe it isn’t even the oldest tree in Three Sisters, it’s just one of the few that has a solid core that allows for accurate age analysis. The trees here are so old that many are flat-topped from storms and hollow from rot. They have survived because of the undisturbed nature of the river system and the pristine water conditions. The Black River has been designated as Outstanding Resource Waters by the North Carolina Division of Water Quality, and the Nature Conservancy has been protecting important tracts along the Black River since the ancient trees were discovered some two decades ago. The river flows nearly 70 miles through Sampson, Pender and Bladen counties before emptying into the Cape Fear River near Wilmington. The area is remote and water levels provide a challenge for kayakers. Guided trips are offered by Watersmyth Kayaking based in Wilmington and also through Sampson County.
In the 1980s, the red wolf was declared extinct in the wild, but its howls can still be heard in only one untamed place on the entire planet. Visitors searching for a unique animal experience can go on a Red Wolf Howling Safari in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The 152,000-acre refuge in northeast North Carolina has successfully restored the critically endangered red wolves to the area through a captive breeding program. About 100 red wolves roam their native habitats in five northeastern North Carolina counties encompassing the refuge. The refuge conducts Red Wolf Howling Safaris to listen to the “music” of the wolves. The two-hour safari educational programs are offered throughout the summer and on select evenings in the fall, winter and spring. Visitors will most likely not see the wolves, as few people ever do, but they typically hear them howl. Safari leaders call to the wolves with a human-produced sound and the wolves howl back. The Alligator River is also one of the last remaining strongholds for black bear on the East Coast and offers other programs for visitors to experience wildlife in its own element, including guided kayak tours.
Gem mining is a popular activity for visitors to North Carolina and when it comes to emeralds, the Hiddenite area in Alexander County is unmatched. The largest and longest emeralds ever found in North America were found in the Hiddenite area, which is home to Emerald Hollow Mine, the only emerald mine in the United States open to the public for prospecting. Visitors can search for emeralds and more than 60 other types of gems at the Emerald Hollow. Most guests select from buckets filled at the mine and use sluicing to separate the gems. Emerald Hollow has three sluiceways where water washes over the soil as a filter. Visitors can also opt to prospect creek-side along the property’s 70 acres in specific areas where digging is permitted. Emerald Hollow also offers lapidary service and is a popular spot for educational field trips. Types of gems found at the site include emerald, aquamarine, sapphire, garnet and amethyst as well as the rare stone called Hiddenite. Hiddenite is a member of the spodumene family of gems and can only be found in this area of North Carolina. Gem mining is one of many popular side trips visitors can experience in North Carolina.
Visitors can experience many of the plants and animals of Canada while standing in the southern Appalachians at Mount Mitchell in Yancey County. Standing at 6,684 feet, the summit of Mount Mitchell is the highest point in the eastern United States and one of the must-do mountain adventures in North Carolina. The 1,946-acre Mount Mitchell State Park offers breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, rolling ridges and fertile valleys. The park protects the most extensive assortment of rare plant and animal species in North Carolina’s state parks system. Mount Mitchell is part of the Black Mountains, which formed more than a billion years ago. Forested and forever misty, the climate is more like that of Canada than North Carolina. Visitors should always prepare for cold weather when visiting Mount Mitchell State Park – even in the heart of summer. Mount Mitchell State Park offers camping, hiking, an exhibit center and a host of other activities. Rangers hold regularly scheduled educational and interpretive programs.
Pier fishing is a tradition along North Carolina’s coast and no spot has a longer history for anglers than the Kure Beach Fishing Pier – the oldest on the Atlantic Coast. The pier dates back to 1923 when L.C. Kure built a 120-foot-long pier made of pine. That pier did not last a year, but in 1924 he pioneered the use of reinforced concrete to build a 240-foot pier. Today, the 712-foot Kure Beach Pier is owned by L.C.’s grandson and still functions as an entertainment and meeting place for visitors and residents of Wilmington and its island beaches. One of several attractions for visitors to Kure Beach, the pier operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week from April 1 through Thanksgiving Sunday. Kure Beach is known for its great fishing, but the area also is home to dolphins and sea turtles.
Visitors love North Carolina’s coast because it offers everything from wild, unspoiled beaches to all the most modern accommodations and activities a beachgoer could desire. North Carolina’s Crystal Coast is unique in that its 85 miles of shoreline include just about every type of beach experience, including 56 miles of beautiful island beaches that are so undeveloped they don’t even have a road on them. This is the longest stretch of undeveloped beach in the eastern United States. The beaches are part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, which is open to the public but accessible only by boat. Visitors can enjoy tent camping or renting a “rustic” cabin at Long Point and Great Island. The cabin camps can only be reached by boat, adding an element of both privacy and adventure. The park’s sandy beaches are also prime locations for fishing, shelling, swimming, birding and simply relaxing. Cape Lookout is also home to the 150-year-old Cape Lookout Lighthouse, which is open for climbing, and the ghost town at Portsmouth Village.
photo credit: Crystal Coast Tourism Authority
With the highest mountains in eastern United States, North Carolina’s ski season starts early, and no one in the Southeast has started earlier than Cataloochee Ski Area in the Maggie Valley area of the Great Smoky Mountains. Boasting one of the most advanced snow-making systems in the Southeast, Cataloochee Ski Area set a record by opening on Oct. 28 in 2008 and consistently opens in early November. Despite the high elevations in North Carolina, snowmaking is essential for optimizing conditions, and all of the state’s ski and tubing areas have advanced snowmaking equipment. From its summit at 5,400 feet, Cataloochee offers a 740-foot vertical drop on 17 slopes with three chairlifts and two conveyor lifts. The area has 100 percent snowmaking, a lighted terrain park and separate tubing area including a Wee Bowl Snowplay area for small children.
While North Carolina has just 88 miles (with another 200 miles that run along the Tennessee border) of the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail, those miles contain some of the most scenic and unusual spots rising and falling along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains and through the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hiking the Appalachian Trail through the Great Smokies in North Carolina’s Swain and Haywood counties is considered a unique experience as this area crosses the Trail’s highest point, goes through its most diverse ecosystem and crosses the largest area of the Trail without a road. The Appalachian Trail can be hiked through the Great Smokies as a five-to-eight-day trip (depending on your speed) from Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap or in smaller segments such as Clingman’s Dome, Max Patch Mountain or Newfound Gap (where you can celebrate your bunions at Charlies Bunion Mountain, which was named after a bunion). Just outside of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but still inside of the “Smokies” region, the Appalachian Trail also passes through the whitewater rafting home of the Nantahala Outdoor Center and down the main street of tiny Hot Springs. Both make great spots for quick hikes on this famous trail.
Visitors who want to see the inner workings of a coastal forest can get an unmatched experience at the Brice’s Creek Saltwater Trail in the Croatan National Forest. Located in Carteret County on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, Croatan National Forest is the only true coastal National Forest in the eastern United States. One of many North Carolina scenic coastal trails, Brice’s Creek is the nation’s only saltwater-based trail through a National Forest. The saltwater trail is nearly 100 miles long starting near New Bern, and nearly travels around the entire National Forest allowing for excellent viewing of its wildlife and plant life including the indigenous venus flytrap and pitcherplant. Brice’s Creek Trail features hundreds of secluded spots that make it an excellent place for kayaking, fishing, bird watching and camping. For those who are less adventurous, many of the trail’s highlights can be accessed by car. A brochure on the trail is available at the Croatan District Office. A popular spot for visitors to the North Carolina coast, the Croatan National Forest has several miles of hiking and walking trails and is known for its pine forest, saltwater estuaries, bogs and pocosins, which are swamps that are slightly elevated. The area features a diversity of wildlife including black bears, turkeys, wading birds, ospreys and alligators.
photo credit: David Sobotta
Merchants Millpond State Park in Gates County in northeastern North Carolina is a natural paradise that is known as a perfect place for a picnic or a relaxing canoe paddle. But watch out for big eyes in the water, because Merchants Millpond is the northernmost home of the American alligator. The park contains one of the state’s rarest ecological communities. Massive cypress and gum trees covered with Spanish moss form a canopy for the dark waters of the millpond, which is a wilderness sanctuary for wetland wildlife. This area is supposed to be too far north for alligators, but they have been spotted in the millpond for several years. Visitors to the park can enjoy a variety of activities including canoeing, fishing and hiking as well as accessible campsites and picnic facilities. The millpond also is a popular stop on a scenic drive of the region.
Waterfalls are one of the most popular sites for visitors in Western North Carolina. There are nearly 350 waterfalls across the state, and more than 250 in Transylvania County alone. Known as the Land of Waterfalls, this easily accessible area also offers visitors quaint towns like Brevard and is known as a hiking and biking mecca. Encompassing parts of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, DuPont State Forest and Gorges State Park, natural adventure abounds in this area. Water plays a large role in everything here, from the classic family attraction of take a tour of the waterfall and sites used for extensive filming. North Carolina has a scenic byway dedicated to waterfalls and Transylvania County even offers a waterfall guide to assist visitors in enjoying as many waterfalls as possible. Visitors are encouraged to use caution and obey the rules as waterfalls are as powerful as they are beautiful.
Imagine world-class whitewater rapids that can increase or decrease at your request. Visitors to the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte can live that experience at the largest manmade whitewater channel system in the world and the only outdoor recreation center of its size and kind. The USNWC’s multiple-channel, customized whitewater river combined with its mountain-biking and running trails, climbing center, ropes courses, ziplines and canopy tour make it the world’s premier outdoor recreation and environmental education center. Located just outside Charlotte near Interstate 85 and set on the banks of the Catawba River, it is a U.S. Olympic Training Site that provides outdoor recreation for rafting and paddling enthusiasts of all abilities. The USNWC also features a variety of events throughout the year as well as dining and group activities.
The Great Dismal Swamp sounds downright…dismal. But what the name hides is one of the great natural areas left in the eastern United States and an area filled with history, mystery and adventure. The 22-mile Dismal Swamp Canal, completed in 1805, runs north/south through the eastern edge of the swamp and is the oldest man-made waterway having sustained continuous operations. Today, it is an alternate route on the Intracoastal Waterway used by boaters going between Chesapeake Bay and the Albemarle Sound. Despite its impressive size and age, the Great Dismal Swamp remains a mystery to most people, but at one point it drew George Washington, Robert Frost and many other notables to it. The swamp also played an integral part in the cultural history of the region with its dense forests providing refuge to runaway slaves. As a result, the Great Dismal Swamp was the first National Wildlife Refuge to be officially designated as a link in the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. The Dismal Swamp Welcome Center in Camden is the only visitor center in the continental U.S. greeting visitors by both a major highway and an historic waterway. The center offers information on the history and mystery of the swamp as well as walking, hiking and biking trails. It also provides access to the Dismal Swamp State Park. For the adventurer, there are 18 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails in the park, or visitors can enjoy a leisurely paddle down the Dismal Swamp Canal in a canoe or kayak. The welcome center offers free bike rentals and features an annual Paddle For the Border event that draws hundreds of visitors for a day of fun on the canal. There’s nothing dismal about that.
Rafting is a popular activity for everyone from families to outdoor enthusiasts, and the opportunities for great rafting trips are spread widely throughout North Carolina. But no one hosts more visitors than the Nantahala Outdoor Center based in the Nantahala Gorge near Bryson City. The NOC hosts more than half a million guests annually, making it the nation’s largest outfitter and the most acclaimed. Since 1972, the NOC has shared the outdoors with millions of guests on whitewater rafting trips, with all varieties of kayak and canoe instruction, on mountain bikes, on hikes, on ziplines and on all other kinds of adventure trips. The NOC’s Nantahala headquarters near the Great Smoky Mountains in Western North Carolina is a complete outdoor destination with an outfitter’s store, general store, fly shop and the Nantahala Welcome Center. The center is located directly on the Appalachian Trail and is frequently used as a stop-over for trail hikers. Lodging and dining are also available for visitors coming to raft or just to take in the beautiful scenery.
Nearly 20 zip line (or canopy tour) attractions have cropped up in the past few years in North Carolina offering opportunities for swinging through lush treetops, past waterfalls and even over the snow. North Carolina’s rolling topography has made it the perfect breeding ground for zip line attractions. While heights and speeds can be breathtaking, swooshing between landing points is low-impact; the ride is naturally propelled by the gravity of your own body weight. There are even zip lines designed for kids as young as 3 years old.
photo credit: Navitat Canopy Adventures
With more than 3,000 miles of trout streams and 1,100 miles of hatchery-supported trout waters in the mountains alone, North Carolina is a fly-fishing haven. It’s also the only place in the nation with a designated fly-fishing trail. The Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail takes anglers to 15 prime spots in the Great Smoky Mountains to catch trout. Sites feature a variety of options ranging from wide-open rivers to small, secluded streams. The trail’s website also includes helpful links on licensing, guide services and places to stay for visitors ready to take to the water. The trail was designed by two outdoorsmen and fly-fishing guides. Fly fishing is popular throughout the mountains and foothills. Several mountain destinations offer Community Fishing Programs with rod and reel “loaner” programs for first-timers and novices. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission also conducts annual fly-fishing clinics for beginners.
photo credit: Jackson County Chamber of Commerce
The High Country isn’t just home to the highest ski area in the East – it’s also a popular spot for mountain biking. Beech Mountain Resort is a four-seasons destination with scenic lift rides and mountain bike trails for all skill levels as well as a summer racing series. Riders also can enjoy 10 miles of trails on the nearby Emerald Outback, the highest single-track cross country trail network on the East Coast. Serious mountain bikers first capitalized on this area’s terrain in the 1990s with the Tour DuPont, and again during the Mountain Bike Gravity National Championships in 2011 and 2012. But Beech Mountain isn’t the only popular biking destination in the North Carolina mountains: In the Smokies, riders flock to Transylvania County to experience the Cycling Capital of the South.
photo credit: Collin Waldron
Escaped from Spanish ships, North Carolina’s wild horses have run free for nearly 500 years on the beaches of Corolla on the Outer Banks and Shackleford Banks on the Crystal Coast. These majestic Banker ponies roam freely across the miles of pristine beaches on these isolated islands. The best way to see them is on a wild horse vehicle tour, a trip with the Corolla Wild Horse Fund or boat tour of the Shackleford Banks. In Corolla, you can rent a home along the 4×4 beaches and possibly have wild horses share your yard or patch of beachfront. But be careful, state law requires that everyone remain at least 50 yards away from these unique and precious residents.
photo credit: Crystal Coast Tourism Authority